Snakeskin

Director: Gillian Ashurst
Year: 2001
Country: New Zealand
Running time: 92 mins
New Zealand
screenplay: Gillian Ashurst
production co: Cowgirl Productions
producer: Vanessa Sheldrick
executive producers: Chris Brown, Katherine Butler, Trisha Downie
photography: Donald Duncan
editors: Cushla Dillon, Marcus D'Arcy
production designer: Ashley Turner
costume designer: Katrina Hodge
music: Leyton Langelveld, Joost Langelveld
Bold, funny, sexy and macabre, Gillian Ashurst’s juicily cinematic first feature boots the cinema of unease into the new century. Alice (Melanie Lynskey) lives, to her dismay, in the outer suburbs of a flat South Island town, which she identifies with sweeping peevishness as New Zealand. Why wasn’t she made in America like Princess Leia, like Elvis, Marilyn, Thelma and Louise, Nancy Sinatra, The Dukes of Hazzard? Everyone in New Zealand is just too boringly safe.

Alice’s cute friend Johnny (Dean O’Gorman) provides some consolation, but not as much as he’d like to. What law student could? They’ve cut the roof off his Valiant and they drag up and down the straight and narrow country roads dreaming of Route 66, and looking for dodgy hitch-hikers who might offer Alice the trouble she craves.

They find their man in Seth, a billboard hunk of American cowboy with snakeskin boots, a serpent tattoo and a few spare tabs of acid. Heading west becomes a matter of dodging all the people who’d like to get a piece of Seth: a carload of skinhead speed freaks on a rural home invasion spree; a dope-dealing couple in a Mr Whippy van; and a baleful bro on a bike packing a family grievance.

Ominous signals abound but they only jazz up the trippy euphoria of Alice’s adventure. Fields of sunflowers and hallucinated skies are so sweetly enhanced for our delight with little cgi tricks and inspired retro pop music choices, that even the sheep seem to be high. But as day turns to night, the mountains close in and sexual tension reaches cataclysm at a mushroom-fuelled West Coast pub – to a strangled rendition of the proto cowboy junkie classic Some Velvet Morning (When I’m Straight). There’s worse to come.

Racing three cars full of bad-ass characters across the plains and into the heart of darkness is an ambitious project for a cowgirl, but abetted by deft editing, tasty performances, stunning cinematography and passages of inspired writing, Ashurst keeps the curse of the Kiwi caper comedy at bay. Exploiting road movie dynamics and wild South Island landscapes with an expert’s love of both, she’s reanimated the spirit of Pork Pie with the sexual politics, the drugs and the pop-trash-fetishism of the OOs. — BG